Is your coffee addiction harming your health?

Caffeine is the most widely used stimulant in America, and, chances are, you’re one of the millions of Americans who chooses to get his or her fix through coffee.

Research suggests that may not be such a bad thing: Coffee has been shown to reduce depressive symptoms, as well as the chance of developing type 2 diabetes and liver disease. But one issue with your daily cup of Joe that has gained less attention— but is equally important to your health— is that it does a number on the adrenal glands.

Ever wonder what gives you that jolt moments after your first sip? It’s a surge of cortisol and adrenaline. Coffee taps your adrenals to release these stress hormones, so by drinking a cup of java (or a can of soda, as any type of caffeine does this) you are triggering the same physical response your body would have to an imminent danger.

As coffee lovers know, this rush makes you more focused and can become addictive. While consuming coffee can be great before a job interview or high-stakes presentation, daily use can put you into a chronically high-cortisol state. In fact, a study out of the University of Oklahoma revealed that drinking coffee while under even mild stress causes cortisol levels to rise higher and stay high— long past the stressful event.

Another common problem among those who love their daily java is how they’re drinking it. Some people use it as a meal replacement in the morning, and others use it as a means to get cream and sugar into their bodies. You’d be amazed by how many of my patients I get to stop putting half and half and sugar in their coffee and then lose 10 pounds within a few weeks.

In general, I tell my patients to limit their overall caffeine intake to 100 mg a day (the amount in about one cup of coffee, or three cups of green tea). I have had exhausted patient after patient quit coffee and tell me they feel so much better afterward. That’s not, by any means, to say that everyone should stop drinking coffee. But knowing how much caffeine you’re drinking and how it’s affecting your body is crucial to knowing whether your daily consumption is healthy.

Here are 4 ways to be smarter about your coffee habit:

Do the caffeine test

Have your morning cup and set a timer for 60 minutes. When the timer dings, do a check: How do you feel? Jittery? Alert? Anxious? If that cup gave you a nice energy boost that is still in effect or you’re coming down from that boost gently—meaning you’re not suffering that infamous crash— by all means, continue enjoying your morning java. Feeling steady, and not flagging, energy shortly after having coffee indicates that your adrenals are probably not overstressed.

If, on the other hand, you still feel tired, you felt wired for a brief amount of time before turning sluggish again, or you’re reaching for a second, third or fourth cup— those are bad signs. It’s likely that your adrenals are tapped out and coffee is throwing off your cortisol levels, so you need more to get the same effect.

Try green tea instead

If your caffeine test revealed that your adrenals are stressed, green tea is a better option than coffee. It has caffeine but two-thirds less than coffee, so you’ll get a boost without the crash. And research shows it may lower blood pressure and reduce your risk of heart disease and cancer.

Never, ever have coffee in place of breakfast

I see so many people confuse “coffee” with “breakfast.” Nuh-uh. They are not the same thing. You need protein first thing in the morning to balance your blood sugar, which dropped as you were asleep, and that is something that coffee does not provide. So if you need coffee in the morning, that’s OK, but eat something with that first cup.

Avoid artificial sweeteners— and cut back on sugar

Skip artificial sweeteners altogether. Because you’re getting a sweet taste without the calories, your body gets confused— and responds by craving more sweet foods and drinks. A Harvard University study showed that people who use these sweeteners had a 47 percent increase in body mass index (BMI) compared to those who didn’t. If you need a little sugar in your coffee, use the real stuff, but gradually wean yourself down to none. On the rare occasion that I have coffee, I usually have it black, and if I want sweetener, I’ll have one pack of Sugar in the Raw instead. Don’t be fooled by skinny lattes either— they usually contain tons of artificially sweetened syrup.

I am by no means telling you to quit coffee altogether. What I am telling you is to be smart about how you drink it. Pay attention to how that first cup makes you feel, drink it with food, and reduce or cut out the sweeteners. Do that, and your coffee habit will be less likely to harm your health.